This is an exciting new venture, and I’m grateful to the editors for giving me the opportunity to join the conversation. This blog will offer a realist perspective on contemporary global issues. Although realism is a distinguished intellectual tradition with an impressive track record of policy insights, realists have become something of an endangered species ...
This is an exciting new venture, and I'm grateful to the editors for giving me the opportunity to join the conversation.
This is an exciting new venture, and I’m grateful to the editors for giving me the opportunity to join the conversation.
This blog will offer a realist perspective on contemporary global issues. Although realism is a distinguished intellectual tradition with an impressive track record of policy insights, realists have become something of an endangered species over the past sixteen years. Given the results that liberal internationalists and neoconservatives have produced during this period, bringing a bit of realism back into contemporary discourse seems overdue.
What is a "realist perspective?" Realists believe that foreign policy should deal with the world as it really is, instead of being based on wishful thinking or ideological pipedreams (see under "Clinton administration"). Realists know that international politics can be a brutal business and states cannot afford to be too trusting, but we also know that states get into serious trouble by exaggerating threats or engaging in foolish foreign adventures (see under "Bush Doctrine"). Realists respect the power of nationalism and understand that other societies will resist outside interference and defend their own interests vigorously. Accordingly, realists believe successful diplomacy requires give-and-take and that advancing one’s own interests sometimes requires cooperating with regimes whose values or practices are objectionable if not repellent.
Realists appreciate the importance of military power, but they also know that it is a blunt instrument whose effects are sometimes unpredictable. Realists are therefore wary of grandiose plans for social engineering in other countries and believe that force should be used only when vital interests are at stake. Realists recognize that global institutions can be useful tools of statecraft, but they also believe that institutions require great power support to work effectively and are not a default solution for all global problems.
Finally, realists are skeptical of the propaganda that states invariably deploy to justify self-interested policies, and they know that fear, greed or stupidity sometimes lead even well-intentioned democracies to do foolish or cruel things (see under "Iraq"). Realists aren’t moral relativists and don’t think all great powers are morally equivalent, but they know better than to take any country’s idealistic rhetoric at face value.
So that’s where I’m coming from. What topics I address will depend on events, of course, but I remain fascinated by debates about America’s role in the world and the global response to it. Indeed, I believe that a serious debate about U.S. grand strategy is long overdue. We’ll see if a new President, two losing wars, and a global economic recession encourage some genuine rethinking, as opposed to tinkering at the margins. I’m intrigued by the revolution in information technology and trying to grasp its implications for world politics and foreign policy-making. I’m still troubled by the ever-increasing irrelevance of most academic writing on international affairs, and I intend to use this blog both to explore that phenomenon and to bring to light scholarship that actually does say useful things about current policy problems. I admire those lonely voices that question dogmas and speak truth to power — sometimes at great personal cost — and I’ll try to bring some of these unsung heroes to your attention. And oh yes, I will say more than a few words about U.S. Middle East policy, unless it defies expectations and begins to make even a modest bit of sense.
If I’m doing my job, nobody out there will be entirely happy with everything I have to say. But that’s all to the good, because lively but civil debate is an antidote to folly and the best way to avoid repeating past mistakes. I look forward to the conversation.
Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt
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